One of the challenges all museums face is how to keep their galleries and collections insect free. Small bugs like to feed off the natural fibres in wool, silk, wood, and any other natural material, and can damage our collection.
Since one of the main functions of a museum is to preserve its collections for generations to come, all museums need to be aware of any potential problem. Museums tend to be dark and they tend to be warm, with objects often housed in cases or left for long periods of time without anyone opening or moving them. And this means that museums are perfect places for bugs!
This is why every three months or so, myself (the Curatorial Assistant) and a volunteer go round the museum to check the bug traps. These are cardboard triangles which sit, hopefully hidden, in small corners or behind furniture and have a sweet smelling sticky pad on them to attract and then capture insects.
You can find out all about the common (and the more rare) pests that can sometimes be found in museums and galleries at the website www.whatseatingyourcollection.com – not for the squeamish among you!
Common insects found in UK museums include:
Moths (both clothes and case bearing moths)
Carpet Beetle (both aried and Guernsey)
The Brown Carpet Beetle or Vodka Beetle. Its nickname, ‘Vodka Beetle’, comes from the second part of its binomial name, Attagenus smirnovi! And if you need some sustenance to accompany your drink, there is also the Biscuit Beetle: so-called because of its fondness for dried foods and spices, pharmacological products, but also (and more importantly for us), leather, books, and some types of furniture.
And, of course, the Silverfish – in fact a small, wingless insect.
The creepy-crawly that is particularly worrying to museums, especially ones with a furniture collection as extensive as our, is the Furniture Beetle. This beetle is a wood-boring insect, and the females lay their eggs in cracks and holes in the furniture. Thankfully, the Wallace Collection does not have this beetle: touch wood (!) However, if we did have an object affected by this pest we would have to isolate it immediately so that the infestation didn’t spread to other areas of our Collection.
When checking our traps for these, and other, insects, we pick up each trap (gingerly) and record the number of pests we find on it. We have to identify not just the adult beetle or moth but we also have to recognise its larvae too, as these are often the critters that cause the damage in the first place.
We note down any fluctuations in number, and look for unusual patterns that may appear. For example, if there is a peak in numbers in winter when we would usually expect insects to hibernate or die down because of the cold weather then we will need to examine what the reasons behind this may be.
Together with the Conservation team we monitor the levels of cleanliness and examine our objects regularly. So if you see a bug trap on the floor, don’t touch it, it hasn’t been dropped or forgotten it has been deliberately placed to catch pesky little creatures that might eat our objects!